Friday, December 30, 2011

Winding Down ODU's OOC Play

I was all set to drive to Norfolk today to cover Old Dominion’s game against Missouri for the Zone.  But this morning my car acted up and I’m now sitting at the dealer instead while they fix it.  Thankfully I have my laptop and game notes so I can keep myself busy. 

We’re going to review ODU men’s basketball season to date in a second, but we have a few things to share first.  To start us off, Drew Brees knocked a Miami Dolphins quarterback out of the record books.  While as a Bills fan I fully disclose my irrational bias against all-things-Dolphins, this made me a happy guy to see someone break the record.

Rich Radford of The Virginian-Pilot is composing a series of articles discussing where ODU football stands heading into the 2012 season.  You can read his assessment of the offensive line by clicking here.  I’ll hopefully get to my own analysis of the 2011 season within the next few weeks.  Radford and David Fairbank of The Daily Press did a fantastic job covering ODU football this year.

And now we’ll shift gears to the ODU Monarchs basketball team. 

Blaine Taylor’s team has won half of its first dozen games this season, including a win in its only conference game to date.  Although the record may be a disappointment considering last season’s 9-3 start, the drop-off should not be a surprise.

Three of the four seniors who graduated from last year’s 27-7 team (Ben Finney, Frank Hassell and Darius James) finished literally at the top of the list in career games played by a Monarch; the fourth (Keyon Carter) finished 13th.  That is more than a little experience to replace.

Although this year’s squad also has four seniors on the roster, the quartet had not regularly been put into the leadership role with Finney et al on the team.  It’s not a matter of talent – among the seniors is Kent Bazemore, the 2012 Preseason CAA Player of the Year.  The difference has been that outside of Bazemore, they haven’t been on the floor as more than role players prior to this season.

The prime example of the seniors’ lack of game experience came in overtime against Vermont.  After the Catamounts went up by two points late in OT, Marquel De Lancey brought the ball up the court.  Immediately after passing the timeline, he picked up his dribble with his back to the basket.  He turned to his right to hand the ball off to Bazemore; however, he failed to recognize that the person beside him was not Bazmore but in fact a defender.  Vermont easily took away the ball and went on to win the game. 

That is simply not a play an experienced player would make.  While De Lancey’s a senior who has made his contributions over the years, I cannot recall him ever being on the court in such an in-game situation.  That was a learning experience not afforded the senior until this year. 

None of this is meant to sound like criticism or that the team is having a bad season to date.  Bazemore has averaged more than 13 points and almost five rebounds per game; fellow senior Chris Cooper nearly averages a double-double; and redshirt freshman Dimitri Batten averages ten points on 42.6% shooting. 

In reality there was more adversity from the preseason than I can remember for any recent ODU team.  Consider:

·         The offseason started in heart-breaking manner, as Butler scored as the clock expired to defeat the Monarchs by two points in NCAA tournament.  This was cruelly ironic since the final points came from an offensive rebound against the nationa's best rebounding team.
·         Rising sophomore Josh Hicks left the program.
·         Bazemore had offseason surgery on his foot, though he came back for the start of the season when he wasn’t expected back until December.
·         Nick Wright was suspended the first three games of the season.
·         Richard Ross and Donte Hill were ineligible for the first semester of the season.

It speaks well of Coach Taylor’s ability to have this team at 6-6 considering (1) what was lost to graduation and (2) the roster was incomplete until the tenth game of the season.  Even in most losses, the team has done relatively well.  The Monarchs went toe-to-toe with #2 Kentucky in late November until losing 62-52.  Coming off consecutive losses, ODU took a good Richmond team to overtime on the road before losing 90-82.  That’s not even mentioning its overtime win over South Florida or its first conference win, on the road at Northeastern. 

With the above in mind, it is difficult to judge the ups-and-downs of this season accurately.  With a full complement of players from the very start of the offseason, the Monarchs might have been able to beat Fairfield and/or Vermont.  But it’s of no use to make such speculations. 

The one good thing that writers smarter than I am have noted in the past – Blaine Taylor-coached teams play their best ball in February.  Bazemore should only get better as his conditioning improves.  Ross comes in immediately to provide supreme athleticism and hustle.  Trian Iliadis is too good a shooter to continue hitting on only 21.6% of his three-pointers; he hit two of five three’s last week against VMI.  And in general, the team-defense will continue to improve as it plays more games together. 

Some superlatives of note:

Team MVP – Chris Cooper.  As noted above, the senior from Dumfries, VA, averages nearly a double-double at 10.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.  Cooper led the way against Kentucky, posting 17 points with 12 boards and essentially pushing the Wildcats around.  He gets the nod over Bazemore for how the team’s performance changes when he’s not on the floor.  The senior has fouled out in four of the team’s twelve games, and the Monarchs are clearly a better team when he hasn’t been in foul trouble.

Best Team Performance – At Northeastern University.  Road wins in CAA conference-play are treasured, and this game showed the potential of the team.  Cooper chipped in another 17-12; Bazemore added 21 points, eight rebounds and three assists; and Nick Wright scored a dozen points.  Iliadis had a good all-around game with seven points, five assists and two rebounds. 

Worst Team Performance – Against Vermont.  The Monarchs looked like the better team much of the first half and took a 30-24 lead into the half.  But Cooper was in foul trouble, and no one other than Wright could score in the second half – almost literally.  For the game the junior forward provided 24 points and ten rebounds on 9-12 shooting, much of which came after halftime.  The rest of the team hit 13 of 53 shots (24.5%), which includes only six of 38 by the four seniors.  Lastly, the team hit only three of 18 three-point attempts.  They got out to a comfortable lead, but then played like a team still learning how to win.

Best Individual Performance – Nick Wright.  As mentioned above, Wright was the go-to guy for Old Dominion against Vermont.  Anyone who watched him his first two years knew that the young man provides energy, defense and rebounding.  But he had never showed such offensive prowess before this game.  The 24 points tripled his previous career high of eight (accomplished twice).  He converted two late free throws to force overtime.  Honorable mention goes to Batten for his play against East Carolina, in which he scored 18 points and posted nine rebounds as a guard.

Good Times along Hampton Boulevard.  Monarch fans deserve recognition themselves.  Last season, ODU’s average attendance was 7,745; this broke the previous record of 7,492 more than 30 years prior.  This season the average attendance is down a bit but still strong at 7,312.  This figure should rise with expected sellouts when Missouri and the CAA rivals come to town.  Virginia Commonwealth leads the conference with 7,631 fans per game; the next-closest average to ODU is George Mason (3,782).  Considering this year’s high attendance follows a season in which 19,818 saw seven Monarch football games (a sellout in each game), ODU fans should take a bow for their overall support.

Keys to CAA Play.  There are three keys for Old Dominion to succeed as the conference schedule starts in full-swing.  The good news for the Monarchs is that most other teams have shown vulnerabilities this season.  The only 2011-2012 team that comes close to last year’s ODU/GMU/VCU/Hofstra group is VCU, although Drexel has played exceptionally well since Chris Fouch returned to the rotation and got into a groove.

1.       Improved outside shooting.  Last year the Monarchs hit 32.9% of their three-point attempts, which is on the low-side.  Old Dominion made up for its outside shooting, though, as it led the nation in rebounding margin (plus-11.7).  This year ODU is shooting worse (26.7% of their three’s) and is not as good of a rebounding unit (fifth in the conference at plus-3.1).  The presence of Ross should help improve the rebounding margin but he has not displayed a consistent outside shot.  (Mind you, he’s played only three games.)  The team needs Iliadis (11 of 51 3’s) and Bazemore (14 of 61) to improve their low rates from outside.

2.       Cooper’s Presence.  Blaine Taylor has shown an ability to recruit and coach post players who produced at a high level.  Chris Cooper follows Frank Hassell, who followed Gerald Lee, who followed Valdas Vasylius and Arnaud Dahi, who followed Alex Loughton.  In out-of-conference play, Cooper has displayed the skills to at least be mentioned with those players.  However, he fouls out once every three games (he currently average 3.8 fouls/game) and the team’s next post option is Nick Wright.  While Wright has produced this season, he does not have the physical presence of Cooper.  Jason Pimentel showed potential early as well, but he has not played the last three contests.  The less Cooper is in foul trouble, the more the Monarchs will win.

3.       The Play of the Newcomers.  If Batten ends the season at his current average of 10.0 PPG, it would be the highest average for a freshman Monarch under Blaine Taylor.  Dahi holds that honor as he finished with 9.0 PPG in the ’03-’04 season.  Coach Taylor acknowledged that Ross led the team in hustle plays his very first game (against Central Florida).  Hill adds another threat on the wings to take the pressure off Bazemore and averages more than six PPG.  While Batten must continue his strong play, Ross and Hill must assert their talents into the team without unbalancing the team’s chemistry on the court.  Nine games is a long time for the other players on the roster to familiarize themselves with each other in the flow of a game.

In the last five years, Old Dominion has finished seasons with win totals of 27 (twice), 25 and 24.  The outlier in that stretch was ’07-’08, when the team finished 18-16.  That year’s senior class included Drew Williamson, Brandon Johnson and Brian Henderson.  Will this team finish with at least 20 wins?  The talent is there.  The key is how well the individual talent can meld now that it's finally been combined.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Catching up on CAA Basketball

After a season of covering CAA football for and, I have the honor of covering CAA basketball for the rest of the season.  Now that college football is essentially over, it’s time to start following college basketball full-time.

While I followed the first month of college basketball, it was admittedly a view from afar.  Between work, family, traveling and football, my time to actually watch basketball was limited in November and early December.  I got to watch games involving ODU, UNCW and George Mason on TV but I was mostly relegated to reading game stories and box scores.

I preface this blog post with the above information so the reader understands the purpose of this post – to catch up a bit on CAA teams by analyzing detailed statistics.  It’s also a good time to do so as the non-conference schedules are mostly completed.  Statistics can tell a story that may not fully reflect reality, but there's only so much basketball I could watch until now.

I’ve seen only three games in person – two at Towson and one at Drexel.  However, I’ll get to attend one game every weekend until the CAA tournament, when I’ll be there for at least the quarter-and-semi-final rounds.  So what can be learned from reviewing statistics? 

University of Delaware (5-5, 1-0)

·        The Blue Hens have maintained their starting rotation most of the season – four players have started all ten games, while a fifth has started eight.  One of those four starters is Devon Saddler, last year’s CAA Rookie of the Year.  Saddler is second in the conference with an average of 20.2 points per game.
·        Two starters are hitting more than 56% of their shots – Josh Brinkley (56.5%) and Jamelle Hagins (56.3%).  Hagins averages a double-double with 14.3 points and 11.8 rebounds per game.

Drexel University (6-4, 0-1)

·        Drexel is out-rebounding its opponents 35.2 to 31.6 per game.  They’ve accomplished this as a team rather than relying on one individual; four players average between 5.3-6.8 rebounds per game. 
·        The Dragons are one of three CAA teams with more assists than turnovers (Georgia State and Virginia Commonwealth are the others).  Three guards – Frantz Massenat, Damion Lee and Chris Fouch – have 68 assists against 44 turnovers.
·        Four players average double figures in points, led by Massenat’s 13.1 per game.

George Mason University (8-4, 1-0)

·        Paul Hewitt has made sure the right Patriots are taking the most shots.  The four players with the most shot attempts are also among their top five in shooting percentage.  Ryan Pearson leads the team in attempts (149) and shots made (82); he is also second in shooting percentage (55.0%).
·        Two of the conference’s top five shot blockers play for George Mason – Erik Copes (third with 2.3 blocks/game) and Mike Morrison (fifth with 1.8/game). 
·        Bryon Allen and Corey Edwards have connected on a combined four of 33 three point attempts (12.1%).  The rest of the team has hit 49 of 129 (38.0%) treys.  Allen has made 31 of 56 two pointers (55.4%).

Georgia State University (9-3, 1-0)

·        The only stat that matters – the Panthers’ win this week over rival Georgia Southern established the program’s longest winning streak at nine (and counting). 
·        Eric Bucker leads the CAA in blocked shots; he has blocked more shots (36) than he has committed personal fouls (31).
·        New coach Ron Hunter already has Georgia State playing at his preferred fast pace.  Five Panthers have double-digit steals, led by Devonta White’s 22; three Panthers are in the top ten in steals per game in the conference.

Hofstra University (5-7, 0-1)

·        The Pride have hit 58 of 151 three pointers as a team (38.4%).  Mike Moore has taken 70 of those 151 attempts, converting on 32 of them (45.7%).
·        Dwan McMillan leads the team with 54 assists, and has committed 30 turnovers.  All other Hofstra players have registered 80 assists against 149 turnovers.
·        Nathaniel Lester started the season on a high note, scoring 33 points against Long Island University.  Since then he has scored 117 points (10.6 points/game).

James Madison University (6-3, 1-0)

·        AJ Davis leads the conference by hitting 47.8% of his three pointers; Humpty Hitchens is third with a rate of 45.3%.  These two have attempted exactly half (99 of 198) of the team’s three point shots.
·        Either Davis or Hitchens have led JMU every game in scoring, though Julius Wells did tie Hitchens with twelve points against the Citadel.
·        The Dukes have played their opponents to a virtual draw in turnovers, committing one fewer than the teams they’ve played (126 against 127).  They and their opponents also have exactly the same number of assists (122).

Northeastern University (3-7, 0-1)

·        Three players have started all ten games to date, and two others have started six of them.  Of these five players, only Jonathan Lee has more assists than turnovers (37 to 32).
·        Northeastern is fifth in the conference in free throw percentage at 69.3%.  Joel Smith has converted on 21 of 22 free throw attempts (95.5%).  All other Huskies are a combined 119 of 180 (66.1%). 
·        The Huskies are out-rebounding their opponents 37.0 – 33.9 per game.  Similarly to Drexel, they are doing this as a team effort; five players average between 4.4 and 5.5 rebounds per game and a sixth averages almost four.

Old Dominion University (6-6, 1-0)

·        No Monarch has started every game this season.  Chris Cooper had started every game until ODU’s win over VMI this week.
·        Redshirt freshman Dimitri Batten currently averages 10.0 points per game.  The freshman with the highest PPG average in Blaine Taylor’s tenure in Norfolk is Arnaud Dahi (9.0) in 2003-2004.
·        After leading the country in rebounding margin last season (plus-11.7), the Monarchs are only fifth in their own conference this season (plus-3.1).  Cooper’s 50 offensive rebounds are double the next-closest Monarch (Nick Wright, with 25).

Towson University (0-12, 0-1)

·        Robert Nwankwo has grabbed more offensive rebounds (53) than defensive rebounds (52).  The senior post player is fourth in the conference with 1.9 blocks per game, and similarly to Buckner has more blocks (23) than personal fouls (20).
·        While nine CAA teams have more turnovers than assists, the Tigers are by far the most careless with the ball.  Their turnover margin is a conference-worst minus-9.83; the next closest is the College of William and Mary (minus-5.75).
·        A large part of Towson’s struggles is their lack of experience in the program.  Along with employing a first-year coach, the team returned only one letterman from last year’s team.  One sophomore (Marcus Damas) and two freshmen (Kris Walden and Deon Jones) have started all twelve games.

University of North Carolina – Wilmington (3-7, 0-1)

·        Freshman Adam Smith is fifth in the conference in scoring (17.0 PPG).  The next-closest freshman is Drexel’s Damion Lee, who is 15th (12.4 PPG).
·        Either Keith Rendleman (five times) or Smith (four times) has led the team in scoring in nine of the team’s ten games.  Rendleman has also led the team in rebounding in eight games and averages a double-double for the season (14.3 PPG, 10.1 RPG).
·        The Seahawks are out-rebounding their opponents 36.6 – 35.9 per game.  While Drexel and Northeastern do so with a gang-rebounding mindset, UNCW has only three players who average more than three rebounds.

Virginia Commonwealth University (9-3, 1-0)

·        The Rams lead the conference with an average turnover margin of plus-6.5, forcing 220 turnovers against just 144 of their own. 
·        VCU averages just over eight more FG attempts per game than their opponents (684 against 587 in total).  More than 38% of their shots (263 of 684) are three-point attempts, and they are third in the conference in three-point percentage (35.0%).
·        Riding the momentum of their Final Four appearance last season, the Rams lead the conference in average attendance at 7,631 fans per game.  While ODU’s attendance is close (7,312/game), VCU’s average more than doubles the third-highest average attendance to date (3,782 by George Mason).

The College of William and Mary (2-10, 0-1)

·        In its twelve games, no Tribe player has reached double-digits in rebounds.  Kendrix Brown is the only W&M player to reach nine.
·        Tim Rusthoven has played only six of his team’s twelve games, but leads the team with 17 total offensive rebounds.  His average of 6.3 rebounds per game also leads the team.
·        Seven different players have played all twelve games to date.  Among them, all but Marcus Thornton have started at least four games; Thornton has yet to start a single game.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tennessee at Buffalo: Being a Bills Fan Is Getting Harder

In honor of Beavis and Butt-head: "Uhhh...he said 'getting harder.'"  Huh huh...

We’ll get to the Bills in a moment.  First I want to share a few links.  This entire blog entry is as disjointed as my recent feeling as a Bills fan have become. 

On the bright side, I should have more time to devote to my blog, now that football season is winding down.  We’ll review Old Dominion football’s third season of existence over the holidays.  The season ended with a loss in the playoffs, but to be frank I wouldn’t have bet on a winning season.  I am glad I was very, very wrong: my best-case scenario had the team winning eight games.  They would go on to win ten (nine in the regular season).

I provided a preview of last week’s quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs.  (I am not too humble to point out that I went four-for-four in my predictions of the games.)  You can also read my preview of Sam Houston State this weekend against Montana.

With football season over for the Monarchs, I am focusing more on basketball.  I’m attending one game every Saturday the rest of the regular season, and will attend at least part of the CAA tournament in March.  You can read my summary of Towson’s loss to UMBC by clicking on the link.

Now that I’m done pimping my stuff for other sites, let’s review Buffalo’s game against Tennessee.  They lost.  The Bills were down by two scores most of the game, and the Titans held on late to win, 23-17.  Chris Johnson continued his outstanding play (at the time) against a Buffalo defense that’s weak against the run.

I could go into a long analysis of the game but the tune this season is a familiar one, even when the Bills were winning early.  Except in a win against the Redskins weeks ago, Buffalo’s defense just hasn’t gotten the job done.  There are individual players who will clearly contribute over the next several years; the problem has been depth.  Deficiencies were masked by come-from-behind victories pulled out by the offense.

When I began writing this post I wanted to go into detail of the team’s defensive woes, but it gave me an idea for another post – examining why Buffalo hasn’t played a playoff game since January 2000.  I can’t do that adequately without doing research, but here are some highlights:

·        Hiring Gregg Williams in 2000 as a head coach when better options were available.
·        Drafting Willis McGahee in the first round in 2002 when the team already had a productive Travis Henry.  (It turns out Henry was certainly productive over the years, just not strictly on the field.)
·        Trading up to draft JP Losman in the 2004 draft after Pittsburgh already picked…Ben Roethlisberger.
o   As an aside, Microsoft’s Word 2010 recognizes “Roethlisberger” as an actual word, whereas it thinks “Losman” is a misspelling of “Lowman.”
·        Hiring Marv Levy as general manager in 2006, who hired Dick Jauron as his head coach.
·        Drafting Donte Whitner in 2006 even though Haloti Ngata was available.  The Bills were adamant about playing the 4-3 “Tampa Two” defense.
·        Drafting Aaron Maybin in 2009.  In the first round.  On purpose.  Even though we were adamant about playing the 4-3 “Tampa Two” defense.  He fit neither the lineman nor linebacker positions in the 4-3 defense.

And now, I am officially depressed.  Mind you, all these items happened between 2000 and 2009...and are issues that happened OFF THE FIELD.  Wait until I spell out how these impacted losses when I examine the worst games of the past decade. 

But we’re going to move on from that and just get to the pictures.  I promise the next post about the Bills will have more oomph to it...probably once the season is over and I can be more objective about ANOTHER YEAR OF NOT MAKING THE PLAYOFFS.

The Jills performed before the game.

Former Bills great Steve Christie waved a flag to pump up the crowd.
Matt Hasselback led the Titans to a score on this opening drive.
McIntyre (38) opened led the way for Choice (30).
Fitzpatrick is the Bills' best QB since Drew Bledsoe in 2002.
Chris Johnson rushed for 153 yards and two touchdowns. 
Fitzpatrick is having a better season than his stats (and win/loss record) indicate.